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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for August 2017

A Syrianized World

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fascistsAlongside the chants of ‘Blood and Soil’, ‘You Will Not Replace Us’, ‘White Lives Matter’ and ‘Fuck You Faggots’, some of the privileged fascists rallying at Charlottesville, Virginia gave their opinions on the Syrian issue. “Support the Syrian Arab Army,” they said. “Fight the globalists. Assad did nothing wrong. Replacing Qaddafi was a fucking mistake.”

It’s worth noting that these talking points – support for Assad and the conspiracy theories which absolve him of blame for mass murder and ethnic cleansing, the Islamophobia which underpins these theories, the notion that ‘globalists’ staged the Arab Revolutions, and the idea that the Libyan revolution was entirely a foreign plot – are shared to some extent or other by most of what remains of the left.

In 2011 I expected that Syria’s predominantly working-class uprising against a sadistic regime that is both neo-liberal and fascist would receive the staunch support of leftists around the world. I was wrong. Britain’s Stop the War coalition marched furiously when it seemed America might bomb the regime’s military assets, but ignored America’s bombing of Jihadist groups and Syrian civilians, as well as Assad’s conventional and chemical attacks on defenceless people, and Russian and Iranian war crimes. Key figures in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party followed the StW line. Diane Abbott called the police when Syrians attempted to speak at a StW event. During the final assault on liberated Aleppo last winter, Emily Thornberry suggested to Channel 4 News that Assad protected Christians, that the problem would be solved if ‘jihadists’ left, and that the Assadist occupation of Homs was an example to be emulated – never mind that liberated Aleppo contained democratic councils, that its revolutionaries included people of all religions and sects, or that 80% of Assad’s troops in that battle were foreign Shia jihadists organised by Iran – nor that the vast majority of Homs’s people remain in refugee camps, too terrified to return. John McDonnell gave a speech in Trafalgar Square on May Day under a Stalinist flag and the Baathist flag – that’s the flag of a previous genocide and the flag of a genocide still continuing. It wasn’t him who put the flags up, but he didn’t ask for them to be taken down.

In 2011 I should have known better. Leftists had long made excuses for the Soviet occupation of eastern Europe and the genocidal occupation of Afghanistan. Noam Chomsky, to pick one, made excuses for Pol Pot and Milosevic (today, of course, he rehearses the conspiracy theories which claim Assad’s innocence of sarin gas attacks, and channels like Democracy Now  repeatedly offer him and others a platform to do so).

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 12, 2017 at 4:57 pm

Posted in Syria, the Left, UK, USA

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We Crossed A Bridge and it Trembled

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This review first appeared at the Guardian. (I would recommend my and Leila’s book Burning Country as the best social, political, historical and cultural contextualiser of the Syrian Revolution, and Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s The Impossible Revolution as the best analysis – and one of the best political books you’ll ever read about any topic – but I would certainly recommend this remarkable book for its method. The entire story is told through the voices of Syrians themselves.)

bridgeEveryone talks about Syrians, but very few are actually talk to them. Perhaps that’s why Syria’s revolution and war have been so badly misunderstood in the West – variously as a US-led regime-change plot, or an ancient Sunni-Shia conflict, or a struggle between secularism and Jihadism.

“We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled” bucks the trend. Here the story is told entirely through the mouths of Wendy Pearlman’s Syrian interviewees, hundreds of them, from all social backgrounds, Christians and Muslims, Ismailis and Druze, rural and urban, middle-class and poor. These best of all possible informants – the people who made the events, and who suffer the consequences – provide not only gripping eyewitness accounts but erudite analysis and sober reflection.

The introduction, alongside a concise overview of developments from 1970 to the present, describes Pearlman’s method. She interviewed refugees (who are therefore overwhelmingly anti-regime) in locations stretching from Jordan to Germany. And she interviewed in Arabic, enabling “a connection that would have been impossible had I relied on an interpreter.” The result is testament both to Syrian expressive powers and the translation’s high literary standard.

These heart-stopping tales of torment and triumph are perfectly enchained, chronologically and thematically, to reflect the course of the crisis. They begin with life under Hafez al-Assad’s regime, “not a government but a mafia”, when children were trained to lie for their families’ security. “It was a state of terror,” says Ilyas, a dentist. “Every citizen was terrified. The regime was also terrified.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 12, 2017 at 8:41 am

Posted in book review, Syria

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The City Always Wins

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City Cover ExtraAn edited version of this review appeared first at the Guardian.

“The City Always Wins”, the astounding debut novel by British-Egyptian film-maker Omar Robert Hamilton, opens after the seeming triumph of the Egyptian revolution’s early stage has passed, though it is remembered, cinematically, as “an explosion of light, sound and epic consequence with no room for ego or doubt.”

Now the revolutionaries are flailing in various tides of counter-revolution. The new Muslim Brotherhood government forces through a constitution which ignores key revolutionary demands. Brotherhood ‘security’ and a revived police force torture and murder at will. The army kills too, and prepares to seize total control. To emphasise these reversals, parts one, two and three of the novel – though the story moves forward chronologically – are titled respectively Tomorrow, Today and Yesterday.

Crowds are evoked through disputatious voices. A large and striking cast of characters struggles in night-time streets, chokes in traffic or on tear gas, argues in bars, and waits in hospitals and morgues. They are brought together through the figure of Khalil. Palestinian-Egyptian, and American born, Khalil’s problematised nationality, and people’s responses to it, is one way in which the novel questions the nature of community. Khalil’s partner Mariam is a medical worker seeking a life worthy enough to “conquer death with memory”, and a feminist in the way she lives and loves, though she never mentions the word.

Khalil co-founds Chaos, a magazine, website and podcast (in the real world, Hamilton co-founded a media collective called Mosireen). The office “becomes a cerebral cortex at the centre of the information war.” Significantly, the novel begins at the massacre of (mainly Christian) protestors outside Maspero, the state media HQ. Later, Khalil will have reason to repeat: “I wish we had taken Maspero.”

The revolutionaries set up illegal radio transmissions, write manifestos, crowd-source, make public art. Increasingly they also tend the wounded, comfort the bereaved, and find lawyers for the detained. Some of the people here are real, like the imprisoned activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, Hamilton’s cousin, to whom he dedicates the book.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 4, 2017 at 7:59 am

Posted in book review, Egypt

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